War of the Worlds: Invasion of High School Students in College Classrooms

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Tinsley By Ron Tinsley

Fellow Adjuncts By Choice, indulge me for a moment. Sit back and think about your lives. Think about the success. Think about who you have become. Now, flashback to 10th grade! Think about what was important to you at that time. How will I get rid of this big bump on my nose? Does he/she really like me? Ok. I’ll stop. Suffice it to say that so much of what was important then is not important now.

This whole exercise was meant to remind you of what you were like when you were a precocious (of course you were) teen. In 10th grade you feel like you just got to high school, yet you must start planning for after high school. I have worked in after school programs, for youth organizations and I have taught in the classroom. I have learned a thing or two about what makes young people tick. I write this not as an expert but as a friend of young people and as a teacher committed to education.

Dual credit courses have become popular in the past decade—enabling high school students to gain college credits before they graduate. As a part-time high school teacher, I believe this experience allows those students to see the difference between the expectations in high school and college. The other benefit is the reduction of tuition costs in the long run if one takes enough courses. What parent would not want their son/daughter to knock off, perhaps, a full semester of college? In addition, passing advanced placement (AP) courses can net students college credit at many universities and place you at a higher level when you enter. This could mean bypassing some prerequisite courses altogether. Today, a strong partnership between higher education and grade school education is a win-win situation in an era of uneven education in the richest nation on earth.

As more of these courses are offered for free, I am predicting that there will be a large influx of teens into college credit courses in the near future. Are you ready? Are these students in your classes already? We need to brace ourselves for either an infusion of teens into our college classes and/or be prepared to teach a college class exclusively for high school students.

I want to share some thoughts about teaching high school students.

The IT Generation

Many young people use technology under the guise of multi-tasking and socializing. Frontline’s  “Digital Nation” documentary showcases the impact of multi-tasking on students at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Ask yourself this question: when you asked your class to turn to a certain page in the textbook, how many of them asked you to repeat the page number within 30 seconds? Some researchers believe that young brains are being rewired because of high exposure to visual stimuli via media and technology; the result of trying to do too many things at once.

I set parameters early in my college classes about mobile phone and laptop use: students need to stay on task. There is no texting/phone calling in my classes. (I don’t penalize when parents call their children. However, I ask the teen to make it clear to the parent that it needs to be an emergency or urgent situation in the future.) You have to be strict. I know this is true and it is one of the reasons why I don’t let students in my day time high school class use the water fountain. On the other hand, if I have a class of seven or fewer students, I relax a little because it is easier to track their technology habits and respond to them. 

“Kids today live in an on demand world – TV on demand, Internet on demand, shopping on demand, food on demand, even friends on demand! Everything is fast and everything is now. Can you imagine asking these children to sit down and read a chapter in a text book without any special effects, without high-definition sound, without instant downloads and without instant gratification?”

–L. Layendecker, Education (or lack thereof): America is Getting Dumber, Helium.com

Physical Classroom Structure

I have found in my experience that the further a student sits away from the teacher, the more likely they will produce low quality work. Although this is not true in every case, I remember as a teen sitting in the back of the class for one reason: I did not want to be bothered. Once I get a sense of how big the class will be, I arrive before they do and tell them which rows are available. (Some instructors tape off the sections.) Is this juvenile for a college class? No, because high school students are accustomed to being in a highly structured environment. Sitting near the teacher and other students easily facilitates collaborative learning, especially during group projects and discussions.

Real Life Scenarios

Today’s youth want to know how what they are learning is going to help them later. It’s a valid question. They are so inundated with real life situations (caring for younger siblings, working, etc) that they have lots of questions. I always find a way to make a theory practical in their lives. The difficult part is that there are some teens who believe what they see on television and in the movies. In other words, some teens have a skewed view of reality. For example, in my media literacy class, we discussed the influence of media on people. Each student was convinced that s/he is not influenced by media. The difficult part about teaching teens is this tug of war between theory and practicality. Some professors simply want to teach, while others want to conduct the whole class as a real world experiment. I find myself falling in the middle depending on the make-up of the class.

First Impressions

Many times after I finish teaching a course, I usually hear the students’ first impressions of me. It usually goes like this: “I really enjoyed your class Mr. T. It was fun and I learned a lot. I actually thought you would be a _______________________ (fill in the blank with something that could make me feel insecure).”

Now there is a double edged sword. Some teen students are looking to be entertained, and if you do not provide that, they tune out. Sometimes I feel like they expect me to put on a clown suit and juggle bowling balls and a chainsaw for their amusement. There is something to be said about using humor and storytelling in the classroom. I tell students right up front that my job is to educate, but how we get there may be a rollercoaster ride. I have learned that humor opens them up to learn about more serious subject matter. Humor should not be an attempt to be their buddy. I know this is a slippery slope, and that there are many who have slid off the slope and sacrificed their authority and credibility as an adult and as an educator. The goal is to help teen students see that learning can be fun sometimes depending on how you see it. The goal is not to get them to brand you as “cool.”

We can either handle this teen invasion with a bunker mentality or wave a white flag. I will do neither. I will arm myself with knowledge of the subject I must teach and use prior experience gained mentoring young people. Teen students can be very unpredictable simply because their brains are still developing. Faculty may have to deal with mood swings and impulsiveness (and not just their own). On the other hand, I have found that if you can get teen students to focus, they will soak up the course material…often minus the academic terms. In spite of this, I would still welcome teen students into my college classroom because frankly…it’s the wave of the future!

About this Adjunct: Ron Tinsley is a Communications Director by day and an Adjunct Instructor by night. He teaches classes on Urban Youth Culture, Media Literacy and Urban Studies. He has a BFA in Graphic Design from The University of the Arts and a MA in Urban Studies from Eastern University.  For the past 20 years, he has worked with children, youth and families in disadvantaged communities. He is nervously entertaining the idea of getting a PhD.

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